It seems like every year, Lent takes us by surprise.
It’s like, we spend the last six weeks of every year trying our best to make it through the agonizing pace of life we’ve set for ourselves during the Christmas season, and then we spend the first six weeks of the new year trying to make changes and re-organize our priorities so that life gets back to normal.
And then, just when the decorations are all finally back in storage, your house is orderly and your company gone; just when the rhythm you’ve been missing is about to return; Ash Wednesday comes and throws us into a time of darkness and longing and sacrifice.
Lent puts us in an uncomfortable position; being asked to acknowledge that somehow in the muck and the grime; in the petty jealousies and the raging hormones of our everyday, the sacred mystery of God has broken in and is shining through.
For six weeks, at least in church, we anticipate an Easter morning that eludes us, frightens us, unsettles us, and defines us all at the same time.
It is only too real of a thing, to read and agree with the gospel of Mark, for in the baptism of Jesus we hear echoes of our own.
After all, it begins in the water; where baptism is given; where new identity is bestowed.
Since the time of Noah’s Ark, water has had a special place in world history.
It’s symbolic of that which has the power both to destroy life and preserved it.
The floodwaters ravaged the Earth as they bore the seeds of its redemption.
Chaos was mingled with redemption as God un-made nearly all the work of His hands.
And as horrific as the story is, and as much as you might be offended by the monstrous picture it seems to paint of a fickle and finicky God, this same plot has been repeated throughout history!
The mysteries of life and death are woven together so that you cannot find one without the presence of the other.
At the time of Noah, the water brought the covenant; Heaven bowed low to kiss the promise of this new earth with all that lived in it, and the rainbow continues to stand in witness.
At the end of Noah’s story, you can almost hear the whisper God breathed in his beloved’s ear: the promise to protect life and not destroy it, even though in life there is also death.
So it should come as no surprise when we begin the gospel of Mark, that again heaven bows low to kiss the earth through water.
Again a promise is spoken by God; “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
As it was in Genesis, so it is in Mark; that the water of the covenant combines a radical kind of living with a radical kind of dying.
Like Jesus, it’s in the waters of baptism where we hear the voice of God proclaiming us to be His precious sons and daughters, declaring our infinite worth; our infinite value.
Can you remember your own baptism? Can you remember hearing that voice; maybe still and small like Elijah heard; maybe thundering from heaven like in the passage today.
Either way I hope you heard loud and clear the same message that Jesus heard; you are my precious son; you are my precious daughter; with you I am well pleased.
There is power and meaning beyond measure in those words.
First, that God is pleased; not angry.
Second, that we are his children.
It’s a message and an identity that cannot be emphasized enough, because in the very next breath, we are driven…like Jesus was driven…into the desert.
And I think when you’re in the desert, you need all the help that a rooted identity can give you; because you’re identity is all you’ve got.
In reality, your identity is all you’ve ever got. But the desert has a way of teasing out that question, too.
Who are you in the desert? Who are you, when you experience the absence of God?
Jesus goes from his baptism to the desert in the span of one verse.
How long did it take you?
Lent is wasted on the comfortable, the content, and the well-behaved.
It is not the season to make good people better.
Neither is it simply a chance to purge our lives of chocolate and caffeine in hopes of developing a deeper spirituality.
If I can be so frank; Lent is rather much more like hell; a posture where God seems absent, and salvation is merely a whisper in the dark.
Lent is a place where the bonds of the covenant are all we’ve got, because everything else is a pack of lies.
But the deepest mystery of it all is right there, in the temptation, in the struggle, in that wrestling match between the beasts and Jesus and Satan himself.
Would he continue to hear the voice of God proclaiming his infinite value even in the desert?
Or would he listen to other voices?
I don’t get it. Somehow, right there in that struggle, time is fulfilled!
At least, that’s the impression that Mark is giving us.
See, there are only 6 verses in the passage we’re looking at today. In those six verses, Jesus is baptized, driven to the desert by the Holy Spirit, tempted for forty days, the guy who baptized him gets arrested, and Jesus starts to preach that time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.
That’s a lot of action for six verses. We’re used to soundbites; but even for us, we wish Mark would flesh the story out.
It would help us to sleep better at night, if we knew just how Jesus overcame the temptations, or if we could rest assured that the Spirit would give us the same power to stay true and strong.
But what Mark seems to be saying offers no comfort along those lines.
What he seems to be saying is that somehow in our temptations, the fullness of time finds expression. Somehow in our struggle with Satan, with wild beasts, Somehow in our struggle with the covenant itself, the kingdom of God comes near.
And that’s the challenge; that we inhabit the kingdom of God in the struggle, not on the other side of it. Baptism does lead us to the place of an honest encounter with God and His kingdom.
The problem is it’s a place we’d often rather not be, because we prefer the illusion that we have it all together and that life isn’t fragile.
That’s the problem with Lent. That’s the problem with faith.
It’s born of struggle, comes through struggle, and leaves us wanting more.
However, we do have this hope; that in Christ time has been fulfilled.
Through repentance, belief in the good news is possible.
After all, Jesus says “Repent and believe”, not “Believe and Repent”!
The experience comes first. The belief is secondary. Of course it goes both ways, otherwise it wouldn’t be called a covenant. But repentance is what makes belief possible.
So I challenge you with the words of Jesus as we enter into Lent: Repent and believe; for the time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near.